Nicole Lee takes seat in City Council after unanimous confirmation vote

Nicole Lee cemented her place in Chicago political history on Monday as the City Council’s first-ever Chinese-American member after sailing through her confirmation hearing and being sworn into office less than an hour later.

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Nicole Lee is sworn in as 11th Ward alderperson on Monday, March 28, 2022.

Nicole Lee is sworn in as 11th Ward alderperson on Monday afternoon.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The 11th Ward, ancestral home and longtime political power base of the Daley family, is now represented by the Chicago City Council’s first-ever Chinese American and first Asian-American woman.

Nicole Lee, 47, cemented her place in the city’s political history on Monday after sailing through her confirmation hearing and being sworn into office less than an hour later, her two sons at her side.

“While it’s not lost on me, this particular moment in history, I’ve been nominated … to represent the residents of the 11th Ward and they are not all Asian-American,” Lee, 47, told the Rules Committee during her confirmation hearing.

“I’m here to represent the interests of every single person in the 11th Ward, regardless of whether or not they eat rice at night or [for] dinner.”

The confirmation votes in the Rules Committee and the full council were unanimous. There was no debate, only praise, a few basic questions and words of welcome and offers of help with some sage advice sprinkled in.

Nicole Lee chats with Ald. Greg Mitchell (7th) (left) and Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) before a special Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall on Monday, March 28, 2022, where members unanimously approved Lee to represent the 11th Ward on the council.

Nicole Lee chats with Ald. Greg Mitchell (7th) (left) and Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) before a special Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall on Monday, where members unanimously approved Lee to represent the 11th Ward on the council.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“I want to extend my sincerest sympathies,” said Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), only half-joking.

“I always say I’m one signature short of involuntary commitment. It’s insanity. But you were already in an insane position.”

Ald. Sophia King (4th) said it wasn’t “lost on me how difficult a job” Lee has in front of her,“having to learn an office while running an office and running for an office all at once.”

“I appreciate you still wanting to do this and not retreating,” King said.

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, asked Lee if she’s “sure that you want to spend your late nights in your office, your weekends at parades and funerals and wakes and in the alley at 2 in the morning.”

Lee responded with humility and humor to what she jokingly called a “bit of a trick question.”

“I probably am just a little bit crazy for wanting to do this. But, I do. ... I could not be more happy and thrilled and excited and a little bit scared. Maybe a lot scared,” she said.

Nicole Lee talks to members of the Chicago City Council on Monday, the day she was sworn in as 11th Ward alderperson.

Nicole Lee talks to members of the Chicago City Council on Monday, the day she was sworn in as 11th Ward alderperson.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Lee added that every alderperson she spoke to before Monday’s confirmation hearing has “reiterated the same things to me.”

“I sit before you really, like, asking for permission to come and join you in this fight,” she said.

“I’m prepared for whatever’s gonna come. I know that there’s probably gonna be times when I’m gonna stumble. But I have no doubt that, with this body that’s been so generous to me already in terms of offering assistance, that I’m gonna be OK. And when I’m not, I’ll get help.”

During a news conference after Monday’s special meeting, Lee was asked by a reporter for WBEZ-FM about a 2016 bankruptcy case filed on her behalf.

Lee was asked specifically why she did not object when a trustee argued that her case should be dismissed because Lee had “misstated and mis-reported” her finances and expenses.

“I got advice from counsel that it probably wasn’t going to be beneficial to me. And unfortunately, that’s the way it went. My case was dismissed — not discharged. I settled my debts. They’re completely paid,” she said.

“I’m glad that that’s behind me. But I’m glad that there are tools in place for people like me who ran across financial hardship to take responsibility for their debts.”

Lee said she does not believe her bankruptcy case should concern her constituents, though the council approves the city budget and oversees city finances.

“If they are [concerned], good for them. They should be. And I should be held accountable for everything that I do in representing the ward. I hope that residents of the 11th Ward give me an opportunity to show them in my actions,” she said.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration was apparently so confident about Monday’s vote, Lee’s nameplate already was engraved and installed in the 11th Ward seat in the City Council chambers before Monday’s votes.

Nicole Lee chats with Alds. Gilbert Villegas (36th) and Walter Burnett (27th) before a special Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall for appointment of the 11th Ward alderperson, Monday afternoon, March 28, 2022.

Nicole Lee chats with Alds. Gilbert Villegas (36th) and Walter Burnett (27th) before Monday’s special Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall, where she was sworn in as 11th Ward alderperson. She’s holding a Chicago Sun-Times from last week, when she was announced as Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s choice to succeed Patrick Daley Thompson in that ward.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Lee replaces Patrick Daley Thompson, who resigned in February. Thompson, nephew of Chicago’s longest-serving mayor and grandson of the second in mayoral seniority, was required to resign after being convicted by a federal court jury of lying to regulators and filing false income tax returns.

Lee is a United Airlines executive whose father was a longtime deputy chief of staff under former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

In 2014, Gene Lee pleaded guilty to embezzlement and tax fraud after admitting to stealing thousands of dollars from the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association in 2007 and 2008.

“One of the biggest lessons I learned from that experience was the importance of taking responsibility for one’s actions,” Nicole Lee said.

She called her ward a “gateway for immigrants,” a place where “disparate cultures come to raise their families.”

But Lee also has talked openly about the ugly underbelly of the ward she now represents.

“The 11th Ward community has struggled with divisions,” Lee said the day Lightfoot announced her appointment.

“I want my sons and their friends to live in a world that is inclusive. … I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and move the 11th Ward in a new direction.”

Two city ward maps are headed for a June 28 referendum vote — one drawn for the Black Caucus and backed by 33 alderpersons, the other favored by the Hispanic Caucus with 15 supporters. Both would turn Lee’s ward into the first one in which a majority of the population is Asian-American, reflecting a 31% Asian American population gain, to 192,586, in the 2020 U.S. Census.

Asked which of the two maps she supports, Lee punted. She said she wants to study both before choosing between the two camps.

“The impact on my ward is what I’m most concerned about,” she said.


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